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Why So many Singles?

June 26, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

The tip-offs are everywhere, from the grocery store to the newsstand.

Stouffer's alone now makes 86 different frozen foods designed to feed just one person. Want ads in search of relationships are so pervasive they've even reached the august New York Review of Books. And dating services have proliferated to the point they are targeted to such subgroups as the physically handicapped and the astrologically inclined.

The U.S. Census Bureau confirms it: Singleness is the highest it's been since the early part of the century. According to Steve Rawlings, a Census Bureau family demographer, about 41% of all adults of marriageable age (15 and older) are now single. That includes the never-married, the divorced and the widowed.

The numbers are so high that "we've begun to accept the idea of non-traditional households as being normal," said Susan Hayward of the Yankelovich Clancy Shulman market-research company.

It's what demographers call a "glacial" trend--one that creeps up on us. In the case of singles, their percentage of the total population has been inching upward since about 1960, when it hit a 20th-Century low of 32%.

The rise of singlehood in recent years, particularly among people in their 20s and 30s, has led Rawlings and others to predict that the percentage of people who will never marry--now about 5%--is likely to double by the end of the century.

Why are so many opting for the single life? Or, to put it another way, why does it seem so difficult for people to get and stay married these days?

There are nearly as many explanations as there are single people. But among the theories most frequently cited are the growing economic independence of women; the high divorce rate; an increase in longevity, and thus more widows and widowers; more reliable birth control; the acceptance of cohabitation without marriage; the emphasis on career achievement.

Some experts also suspect that, as society becomes more accepting of alternative life styles, fewer homosexuals feel the need to marry to hide their sexual orientation. But these experts could cite no studies to support their suspicions, and whether such a trend would make a statistical difference is uncertain.

Perhaps the most often-heard explanation is simple economics. As women have received more education, moved into the workplace and become capable of supporting themselves in greater numbers, the theory goes, they have felt less pressure to marry for economic security.

"The financial gains to marriage have been going down," said economist Thomas Espenshade, senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. "Women have less and less of an incentive to get married. . . . Their earning power is approaching parity with men, at least it is for black women . . . as female education has risen, wage rates for women have risen."

Louise Bernikow, author of "Alone in America," sees "a social and emotional thing" that goes with that freedom.

"If you don't need a man to support you," she said, "you're much freer to judge a man as a companion. A lot of women, who used to put up with certain kinds of male behavior, don't do it anymore."

Like many observers of trends in marital status, Espenshade said that the current level of singlehood is not unusual if you consider the patterns of the last century. Around the turn of the century, he said, the percentage of single adults was slightly higher than it is now--about 46%. In that sense, the marriage boom of the 1950s was an aberration, and only now are things getting back to normal.

But if the improved financial status of women accounts for fewer marriage vows in recent decades, what explains the similarly high level of singles in the late-19th and early 20th centuries?

"You have to look at it through the eyes of the man," Espenshade said. "The man was saying to himself, 'Can I afford to support a whole family?' " As living standards gradually rose, "men could say to themselves that it's easier to take on the responsibilities of a family." Reliable birth control has also meant that children aren't necessarily a fact of married life.

University of Minnesota historian Elaine Tyler May, who chronicled marriage and divorce patterns from 1880 to 1930 in "Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America," said that being single was once "a much more legitimate option."

"In the 1930s, '40s and especially the '50s, the percentage of women getting married increased, and by the 1950s there were powerful stigmas against men and women who weren't married, both political and sexual," she said.

May doesn't buy the notion that improved economic status for women sent the rate of unmarried adults back up after the '50s. "There are more women who manage to survive on salaries today than there were in the '50s," she said, "but women are still desperately underpaid. There are a lot of other historical and political issues that have a very powerful effect on behavior."

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